public speaking (rhetoric and communication)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

public speaking
"Like the learning of a language, practice in public speaking cannot begin too early" (Giles Wilkeson Gray). (Getty Images)


Public speaking is an oral presentation in which a speaker addresses an audience.

A century ago, in his Handbook of Public Speaking, John Dolman observed that public speaking is significantly different from a theatrical performanceit is "not a conventionalized imitation of life, but life itself, a natural function of life, a real human being in real communication with his fellows; and it is best when it is most real."

Until the 20th century, public speakers were usually referred to as orators and their discourses as orations.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Six Steps to Successful Public Speaking
    1. Clarify your objective.
    2. Analyze your audience.
    3. Collect and organize your information.
    4. Choose your visual aids.
    5. Prepare your notes.
    6. Practice your delivery.
    (John N. Gardner and A. Jerome Jewler, Your College Experience. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002)
  • The Shift From Oratory to Public Speaking
    "[E]ven before the end of the 19th century, both the nature of public speech and the perception of the speaker had departed from the neoclassical model of oratory. . . . Language became more colloquial and speech delivery became more conversational. . . . As more and more citizens of ordinary means took to the rostrum, audiences no longer regarded the orator as a larger-than-life figure to be regarded with awe and deference. . . . Unmoved by grandiloquence, modern listeners favored 'a simple, quiet, and direct address, a straightforward, unartificial, honest manner, without tricks of oratory' (Reed, 1900-1903)."
    (Stephen E. Lucas, "Public Speaking." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Thomas O. Sloane. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Public Speaking in Our Time
    "The tradition of public speaking lives on. Community and business leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem, and Bill Gates use public speaking to inform, persuade, and motivate audiences here and abroad. Political leaders such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Vaclev Havel of the Czech Republic use public speaking to promote freedom and cooperation among the peoples in their countries and around the world.

    "Although the basic skills have changed little since ancient times, styles in public speaking have changed during the past century. A popular pastime in the 19th century was declamation, the recitation of a classic speech. Early in this century, the focus changed to elocution, the control of voice and gesture for emphasis in public speaking. Today, the emphasis is on extemperaneous speaking, giving a speech that has been planned in advance but is delivered spontaneously."
    (Courtland L. Bovée, Contemporary Public Speaking., 2nd ed. Collegiate Press, 2003)
  • "A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.

    "Speeches are not significant because we have the technological ability to make them heard by every member of our huge nation simultaneously. Speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. For two hundred years, from 'Give me liberty or give me death' to 'Ask not what your country can do for you,' they have been not only the way we measure public men, they have been how we tell each other who we are. For two hundred years they have been changing--making, forcing--history: Lincoln, Bryan and the cross of gold, FDR's first inaugural, Kennedy's, Martin Luther King in '63, Reagan and the Speech in '64. They count. They more than count, they shape what happens."
    (Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution. Random House, 1990)
  • Confrontational Rhetoric
    "Colonel Theodore Roosevelt . . . did not talk well unless there was some living and present person for him to speak against. Upon one occasion we heard him make a particularly dreary discourse, and incidentally a political one, until he came to a point where a group in the audience took exception to some statement and attempted to howl him down. It was like the touch of a whip on the flanks of a stake horse. Roosevelt returned to the statement and said it over again, only this time he said it much more dogmatically and twice as well. Before that speech was done he had climbed to the top of a table and was putting all his back and shoulders into every word. Even his platitudes seemed to be knockout blows. He was inspiring. He was magnificent."
    (Heywood Broun, "We Have With Us--" Pieces of Hate and Other Enthusiasms. Charles H. Doran, 1922)
  • Civility in Public Speaking
    "Angry opposition may be a common style of public speaking today, but there are other ways to influence people when you give speeches. As you've watched and listened to combative exchanges, you may heard some call for more civility in public exchanges. The word civility comes from a root word meaning 'to be a member of a household.' In ancient Greece, civility referred to displays of temperance, justice, wisdom, and courage. Over time, the definition has changed only slightly, and in public speaking, civility has come to mean care and concern for others, the thoughtful use of words and language, and the flexibility to see the many sides of an issue. To be civil is to listen to the ideas and reasons of others and to give 'the world a chance to explain itself.'"
    (Cindy L. Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking, 4th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)
  • The King's Speech
    "If I'm king, where's my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak."
    (Colin Firth as King George VI in The King's Speech, 2010)